Gildas Badonicus

   "Gildas wrote his main work, the 'Ruin of Britain', about 540 A.D. or just before, when he was forty three years old. It is a fierce denunciation of the rulers and churchmen of his day, prefaced by a brief explanation of how these evils came to be. This preface is the only surviving narrative history of fifth century Britain. But it was not written as history. Gildas names in the fifth century only one person one place, and one date, which he misplaced. Just enough is known to make his narrative intelligible: we know two key dates from contemporary Europe, and isolated detail from other sources, chief among them a collection of historical documents assembled about 800 A.D. known by the name of Nennius.
   "At the beginning of the fifth century Britain had been a Roman province for nearly 400 years, and for 200 years all freeborn Britons had been Roman citizens; there was no more contrast between 'native' and 'Roman' than there is to-day between 'Yorkshireman' and 'Englishman'. Society was dominated by a landed nobility, whose splendid country mansions, abundant in the southern lowlands, were built and furnished on a scale not matched again until the 18th century. The rents that sustained them were drawn from a vigorous agriculture and industry, whose output was distributed along an intricate road system. But in the highland regions of the south-west, of Wales and the North there was little comparable prosperity; poorer farmers supported no wealthy gentry. Beyond the frontier, northern border kingdoms were still uneasy allies of Roman authority, and beyond the Clyde and Forth lived the hostile barbarian Picts, ready allies of the Scots, the late Roman name for the inhabitants of Ireland, who raided when they could, and had established a number of colonies on the western coasts of Britain.
   "This sophisticated civilisation was destroyed long before Gildas was born. When he wrote, its realities were fast fading from men's memories; to Gildas, Romans were again foreigners, their empire a thing of the past. The Roman empire of the west was mortally wounded in 410, when the western Goths took Rome, though its ghost survived for two generations. The Goths obtained the right to settle in Roman territory under their own laws and rulers, with the status of federate allies, in 418. They were the first, but others soon followed, and when Gildas was young the western empire was divided between four Germanic kingdoms, in France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. Roman and German fused; German kings inherited the centralised authoritarian rule of Rome, and preserved the property and power of landlords.
   "The British differed. In 410 the emperor in Italy instructed them to provide their own defence and government. At first they were outstandingly successful, and kept their society undamaged for a generation. A strong sovereign emerged in the 420s and survived for some 30 years. Later writers knew him by the name or title of Vortigern, which means 'superior ruler' or 'high king'; Gildas' word-play describes him as superbus tyrannus, proud tyrant. Invasion from Ireland and beyond the Forth, which had harassed previous Roman governments for centuries, was permanently ended; but to curb it he settled German federates. Romans, British and Irish called them Saxons, but in Britain they called themselves English; the two words mean the same people, in different languages.
   "In or about 441 the English rebelled. Gildas condenses nearly twenty years' fighting, which ended with the destruction of a large part of the nobility of Britain, and the emigration of many of the survivors. The migration, to northern and central Gaul, is dated by contemporary Europeans to 460, or a year or two before. At home, renewed resistance was begun under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus and continued, traditionally under the leadership of Arthur, for over thirty years until 'the final victory of our fatherland', after the decisive battle at Badon Hill, probably near modern Bath, in the 490s.
   "Gildas asserts that the victors maintained orderly government for a generation, but that in recent years power had passed to regional warlords, whose mutual violence overrode law and convention and corrupted the church. But the British had won the war. The English were beaten, though not expelled, and were confined to partitioned reservations, chiefly in the east. Yet victory had come too late, at the cost of almost everything that the victors had striven to protect. Though Britain was 'calm' and 'secure', freed from 'external wars', Roman civilisation was destroyed. Industry and market agriculture perished as roads became unsafe; towns that lost their supplies became 'ruinous and unkempt'; country mansions not built for defence were abandoned to wind and rain. After more than fifty years of war, peace could not revive a dead society. The skills of the builder, the potter, the tool-maker and other crafts were buried with old men who had trained no apprentices; more important, the rents and taxes that had paid for them could no longer be collected or paid. The war-lords could compel a self-sufficient agriculture to maintain their men and horses, but not to rebuild the past. They maintained their power throughout Gildas' lifetime; but soon after his death the English rebelled again, and between 570 and 600 permanently subdued most of what is now England.
   "But Gildas did not write in vain. On the contrary, few books have had a more immediate and far-reaching impact than his. He uttered what tens of thousands felt. His readers did not reform political society. They opted out. They had a precedent. Two hundred years earlier, in the eastern mediterranean lands, immense numbers had dropped out of a corrupt society to seek solitary communion with God in the deserts; but their sheer numbers forced them to form communities. Their western imitators had hitherto aroused little response; apart from the clergy of some cathedrals and a few high-powered seminaries, Latin monasticism was 'torpid' by 500 A.D., and had inspired only a few pioneers in the British Isles when Gildas wrote. But within ten years monasticism had become a mass movement, in South Wales, Ireland, and northern Gaul. Its extensive literature reveres Gildas as its founding father, named more often than any other individual.
   "Most of this literature is a sickly stew of half-truths, distorted by the ignorance and bias of medieval pietism. But there is first hand evidence that reforming monks were many and popular in South Wales, Ireland and Brittany before the mid sixth century plague, rapidly increasing in numbers thereafter; and that Gildas was respected. In the 7th century the movement spread from Ireland through Northumbria to much of England, and also to eastern France; in the 8th century, English and Irish missionaries brought Christianity and monasticism to Germany. In time, many of these houses adopted a version of the Rule of Benedict of Nursia, and became the nucleus of the later Benedictine Order.
   "A few notices outline Gildas' life. He was born a northerner, in the kingdom of the Clyde, but is said to have been schooled in South Wales, where he clearly wrote, since it is only the rulers of Wales and the South-West that he denounced by name. In later years he said to have migrated to St. Gildas de Rhuys, in Morbihan, in southern Brittany. The Welsh Annals enter his death at 570, and report a visit to Ireland in 565. It is in these maturer years that the Letters were written. There is contemporary evidence (Letter 4, note) that some concerned Ireland, and others intervene in the dispute between ascetic extremists and milder monks which sharpened in the 560s (Letters 2 and 3, notes). The 'Penitential' or Monastic Rule ascribed to him deals with the same problems, and may well be his.
   "Gildas' reputation stood high among the early monks, but he is less esteemed by later and modern writers. Historians who have quarried his early chapters are understandably irritated that he did not provide a clear narrative with names and dates; and the extraordinary Latinity of his main invective seems tiresome, its purpose irrelevant to other ages.
   "The narrative is unclear because it was written from oral memory. The experience of our own age or any other defines the limits of oral memory. Most men over 60 today have learnt something from their fathers of the late 19th century; some listened in childhood to men who were born and schooled before Wellington died, and have heard of Waterloo. But, by word of mouth alone, they can have no understanding or time scale beyond their fathers' youth; they cannot know whether a Martello Tower is older or younger than a romanesque church. So it was with Gildas. In youth he knew older men who had lived through the wars, but few who were adult before they began. All he understood of the Roman past was that it was orderly; though he knew two northern walls, he knew nothing of when or why they were built. Oral memory took him back to the wars and a dateless Vortigern but no further. But for all its obscurity his narrative remains our chief guide to the history of Britain between the Romans and the English. That period shaped the peculiarities of our future. The mid fourth century Roman frontier is still the border between England and Scotland; but behind it, Britain was the only western province where the newcomers met prolonged resistance. The conflict ended in permanent division. There was no fusion between German and Roman; Roman institutions and language disappeared; the Welsh and the English both perpetuate the languages that their ancestors had spoken in and before the Roman centuries. The present day consequences of these divisions are better understood when their origin is known."

JOHN MORRIS

University College, London

   There has been some discussion of the possibility of there being two Gildas. Frank Reno provided a quick summation of the arguments as follows: "The Gildas mentioned in the sources are 1) a certain Gildas appearing in the Life of Caradog catalogued in the Glastonbury archives, 2) a certain Gildas whose father was Caw, 3) a certain Gildas who appears in tales of the Mabinogion, and 4) a certain Gildas who lived during the same floruit as that of Ambrosius Aurelianus.
   "Step by step I see it this way:
1. According to John Bale and James Ussher as described by Caradog of Llancarfan, Gildas was born in 425. [suggests Gildas Albanius, since Gildas Badonicus' birth is widely accepted as c 497]
2. Gildas was born in Arecluta, Scotland. [suggests Gildas Albanius because of geographic location]
3. Gildas studied under Iltud. [suggests Albanius; too early historically for Badonicus]
4. Gildas died around 512. [ suggests Albanius; Badonicus would have been around 15 years old]
5. Gildas returned to Armorica during the time of Childeric (457-481). [suggests Albanius; Badonicus not born until c 497]
6. Gildas was born in 497 [suggests Badonicus--the same year as the Battle of Badon]
7. Gildas penned the De Excidio [suggests Badonicus; penning occurred c. 541; Albanius died c 512]
8. Gildas writes of internal conflict in Wales/England, not in Scotland [suggests Badonicus]
9. Gildas was alive at the time of the castigations of kings [suggests Badonicus; Albanius would have been dead quite a while]
10. Gildas' death as recorded in the Annales Cambriae [suggests Badonicus; date is listed as 570, around 60 years after Albanius' death]"

De Excidio Brittaniae et Conquestu

Saints Lives in the Otherworld Section

Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan & The first Vita - Vita Gildae auctore monacho Ruiensi

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